Koko Taylor was barely a teen when she had her first taste of the blues. The former Cora Walton, raised on a Mississippi sharecropper's farm near the Tennessee border, spent her Sundays singing gospel at a rural Baptist church. But every Monday she celebrated the sound that resonated in her spirit, copying the tunes of Memphis Minnie, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Howlin' Wolf and Big Mama Thornton that she heard on the radio, thanks to local disc jockeys B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.
Taylor, 63, and her brothers would sneak out to the cotton field behind the family's house for jam sessions. Her older brother made a guitar out of hay wire and her younger brother had a corn-cob harmonica. "My dad didn't know about that," she says. "He called it the devil's music, and all of the older people did back in those days because they was religious and everything."
Forty-five years after moving to Chicago, Taylor reigns as the undisputed queen of the blues. A charismatic performer, her vocals are peppered with an assortment of whispers, growls and plaintive cries. She received a Grammy nomination for 1993's "Force of Nature" album, and subsequently recaptured the attention of the mainstream media. She's also made it onto the big screen in recent years, with cameos in "Wild at Heart," "Blues Brothers 2000" and "Mercury Rising," and soundtrack work for "While You Were Sleeping," "Adventures in Babysitting" and "Eight Million Ways to Die."
In 1962, Willie Dixon caught Taylor, then a full-time housecleaner, on stage with Howlin' Wolf in Chicago. She had been sitting in with the likes of Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson and the Buddy Guy/Junior Wells band. "When I finished he said, ‘My God, I ain't ever heard a woman sing the blues like you sing the blues, and that's what the world needs today,'" she says.
Dixon got Taylor signed to Chess Records and penned a hit for the rising star: "Wang Dang Doodle" went to No. 4 on Billboard's R&B charts in 1966. Taylor hasn't repeated that feat, but fans have stayed loyal to her albums and concerts, which include staples such as "I'd Rather Go Blind," "Come to Mama," "I'm a Woman" and "Let the Good Times Roll."
Taylor credits her success to her passion for the music. "When I'm on stage, I sing from the heart, I sing what I feel," she says. "I won't even sing a song if I can't feel it. It's like putting money in the bank. If you don't put nothing in, you can't draw nothing out."